Give It Up

A quarter century ago, when Bonnie Raitt made her debut, she was the first . . . well, whatever it was, we had to go over her with a magnifying glass searching for flaws. Got one! Too genteel. Too nice. Too guilty. Raitt herself, graduate of Quaker camps and the late-'60s Cambridge folk scene, was plenty idealistic and self-critical. She would never be a star, she would always keep her ticket prices low, and she understood her limits. "I can appreciate," said this freckle-faced Radcliffe dropout, "that the audience understands the music of Fred McDowell better through me than through the real thing. If I were better they'd like me less."

It wasn't till her fourth album, Streetlights, that Raitt succumbed to label pressure and reluctantly courted the bottom line. Sometimes I wonder where she'd be if that had never happened--with Arlo Guthrie? Lowell George? To my ears, her sound begins to flatten here, but after all, she was already in the hot seat: having fueled one masterpiece of sorts, Give It Up, her balance of naturalness and hardheadedness was bound to tilt. She'd already hooked up with some of the L.A. musicians who helped invent that studio version of the natural known as the California sound. She knew success could make her support of worthy causes more effective. And in the end, the search for hits, the denial that she cared when she didn't find them, the high-profile do-goodism, the predictable musical molds, the loyalty to nondescript songwriter friends all somehow provided the traction that kept this extremely nice person on the slippery road that, despite bottoming out in the '80s, led to the four-Grammy win for 1990's Nick of Time. At which point Raitt, at 40-plus, emerged as a figure who not only reached the larger audience for honorable artistic reasons, but whose convincing example of a woman in midlife bloom served as worthy a cause as saving the redwoods. Yet for all this, and for all my identification with some of her '90s songs, when I finally got the taste of Raitt's lean new release, Fundamental, I had to admit that I'd been waiting for this one for 20 years.

Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, who coproduced Fundamental with Raitt, may one day reach their limits--already I'm recognizing sound effects from their Latin Playboys collaboration. But so far their tendency to deslickify and deconstruct, to use recording distortions to suggest defective equipment and eerie calm, reclaims the California sound for the millennium. No life in the fast lane here. This is some broken-down freeway ramp sealed off for safety purposes.

The first thing you notice is the album's spareness. The title cut is just plain Bonnie, with subtle percussion and an extended rhythm-guitar figure. The second is written (with Louie Perez) by Los Lobos's David Hidalgo, who sings wavelike unison chorus after very simple, very repetitive verse. The third is angular and circular at the same time, the fourth has a menacing thrust, the next has a wry and fatalistic lyric, and the one after treats us to a voice Raitt mostly keeps to herself, that deep, plain preteen Summer camper who sang "Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes" back on 1975's Home Plate. Fundamental is an altogether plainer and stranger album than Raitt has ever made, appealing as sound alone. But I'm also intrigued by how it bares peculiarities she's been hiding under good commercial taste for two decades now.

Long associated with the blues, Raitt is a singer who even in middle age would not be confused with those old blueswomen who inspired her. She has rasp and raunch, but her sweet and thoughtful sincerity carries the day, even when depression is the subject, and her dramatic shading verges on cabaret. Her very wink, her relish as she digs into her choicest old nuggets, places her outside the tradition that has meant so much to her, while making her that much friendlier and more accessible to an audience she relishes as well. Yet if Raitt has passed the point of rationalizing her right to sing the blues, the question has obscured an even thornier one: her right to remain a summer camper. That summer camper has always had a decisive presence--in her persistent valuing of right, wrong, and the sing-along, and in a deliberateness of rhythmic emphasis that can trip up her groove. In Fundamental's simple frame, that quality seems pleasingly off-center, like the quirky grace and freedom of a girl who hasn't yet learned sexual self-consciousness.

But trimming Raitt's typically voluptuous sound cuts another way. Her winks of solidarity with those raunchy blueswomen may have concealed as much as her protestations that sex symbol was a role she didn't even have the chance to turn down. Sure, Raitt's juicier traits--the slow slides, as liquid and husky as a sexual shudder--are the vocal conventions of sweet soul, but they are pretty convincing. Her groans, her reading of the off-color, even her horseplay with the boys in her bands could make you suspect that this woman really knows quite a lot about sex, perhaps more than she would have liked. Sometimes sex goes into some pretty tricky places, even when broken hearts have nothing to do with it. And on parts of Fundamental, you can glimpse this possibility, the grown-up brave little girl looking it in the eye. On Raitt's "Spit of Love," there's a vision of extreme sexual desire as more curse than blessing, while John Hiatt's "Lovers Will" explores the border between pathology and life force.

For large portions of the album, deadpan, dryness, and fatalism replace the heartache and bittersweet knowledge that have come to be Raitt's signature, while, unadorned, her vocal flatness takes on an instrumental quality, like acoustic blues guitar. Things proceed toward more familiar territory, where her taste in harmony both backup and domestic remains predictable--but always retaining a skewed sound. Accordion trails like laundry on a clothesline on "I'm on Your Side," a guitar strum sounds like strings on the back of a broken piano on "I Need Love," vaguely Caribbean horns and an ethereal moment of what sounds like Hawaiian guitar texture the Oliver Mutukudzi-influenced "One Belief Away."

In the course of that cut, the line "Why is the truth so hard to say?" rises, in another signature--her thoughtful, ethical voice, the one that's honored truth so long it has a special groove for it. This is Bonnie the real pro-you know she really means it, yet you wonder whether she could do this in her sleep. And more power to her, sort of. What Bonnie Raitt was going to be the first of had as much to do with the ability to survive a new kind of power--leading a band, making decisions, making compromises--as it did with her interpretive gifts. What she became was someone who had done that, accepted it, and communicated it in a way that struck a common chord with an audience whose life was nothing like hers at all.

And who knows if Fundamental will touch that audience? I mean, you're getting this from a middle-aged woman who considers Ani DiFranco a role model. As for the middle-aged Bonnie Raitt, she could have made yet another unscheduled breakthrough. But at the very least, she took a much needed retreat. Only instead of going to a spa or an ashram, she spent a month in the desert with some old geezers and a lot of lizards, and came back with new skills. Summer camp.

Village Voice, 1998